Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein is best known for the iconic musical “West Side Story,” the tale of star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria set against a backdrop of 1950s New York City. But it’s his “Key West–side story,” the tale of Bernstein’s own connection with the subtropical island city, that will be showcased for music fans in late March.
“Bernstein spent a considerable amount of time in Key West,” reported George Korn, the president of Key West Impromptu Classical Concerts. “His first published piece of music, the ‘Sonata for Clarinet and Piano,’ was written during his first visit to Key West in 1941.”
Bernstein also began a ballet titled “Conch Town,” whose name salutes the Key West natives known as Conchs, and returned many times to the island.
That’s why Impromptu Classical Concerts created “Remembering Lenny” and other offerings that explore the American musical legend’s work and the ways the island city influenced it.
Along with other Key West events, they’re part of a national celebration commemorating the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s 1918 birth.
Impromptu Concerts’ tribute events begin Sunday, March 25, with a performance by visionary pianist Michael Brown and award-winning Spanish clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester — providing a unique chance to hear “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano” on the island where Bernstein composed it.
The performance is scheduled for 4 p.m. at the majestic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, located at 401 Duval St.
Music and theater lovers have a very rare opportunity to hear recollections of Bernstein from friends and professional comrades — and explore his special relationship with Key West — during “Remembering Lenny,” set for 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, March 27-28.
The event also features the Key West premiere of “Conch Town” — with commentary by composer and musicologist George Steel, who reconstructed the piece from Bernstein’s unfinished work.
Other attractions include performances from Bernstein’s operetta “Candide,” whose lyrics were written by former U.S. poet laureate Richard Wilbur (who lived in Key West). In addition recollections by Bernstein’s former manager, the late Key West resident Harry Kraut, will be read.
Believe it or not, admission to “Remembering Lenny” is absolutely free — but reservations are necessary. The event takes place at The Studios of Key West, a wonderful arts enclave at 533 Eaton St.
What else is planned in Key West to commemorate the Bernstein centennial?
“Bernstein on Broadway,” conceived by Bobby Nesbitt and fellow musician Vincent Zito (who also knew Leonard) will be presented Thursday and Friday, March 15-16. The showcase features a stellar cast and is staged by Fringe Theater at The Studios of Key West.
And a fascinating documentary titled “Leonard Bernstein: Larger Than Life” is being screened at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 19, at Congregation B’Nai Zion’s synagogue at 750 United St.
The screening explores the colorful and incredibly creative man who became one of the first world-famous American-born conductors and composers. Like “Remembering Lenny,” the screening is free.
In case the centennial tribute awakens a craving to see “West Side Story” again (and it almost inevitably will), fans can view the 1961 film classic, featuring Bernstein’s unforgettable score, at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 26, at the island city’s popular Tropic Cinema on Eaton Street.